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Alan Lightman | Theoretical Physicist and Novelist
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

Both a theoretical physicist and a novelist, Alan Lightman bridges the gap between the worlds of art, the humanities, and science, and is an internationally recognized thinker on the meaning of science for understanding ourselves. He speaks elegantly about creative and scientific processes; the role of intuition and imagination; the work of Einstein; the meeting of science and faith; and the wonder and fragility of human nature—what it means to be alive. 

After serving on the faculty of Harvard for a dozen years, Alan Lightman moved to MIT, where he became the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in the sciences and the humanities. His short story, “The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” was the first fiction published by the physics journal Physics Today, and his essay “In the Name of Love” was the first essay on that subject in the prestigious international science journal Nature. Elsewhere, his essays on science and the human condition have been published in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Tin House, The New York Times, and many other places. Lightman’s collection of essays, The Accidental Universe, was selected by BrainPickings as one of the ten best books of the year, and the title essay of that book was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best essays of the year in any category. “Lightman’s illuminating language and crisp imagery aim to ignite a sense of wonder in any reader who’s ever pondered the universe, our world, and the nature of human consciousness.” (Publisher’s Weekly on Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.) 


Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis, about the American obsession with information, speed, and money, was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. His novel Mr g, the story of Creation as narrated by God, blends science and religion and has been the subject of various print and radio commentaries. Dozens of independent theatrical and musical productions worldwide have been adapted from Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams. An international bestseller, this book is one of the most widely used texts in universities today and has been translated into 30 languages. He is also the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine and In Praise of Wasting Time. His book Probable Impossibilities is a collection of meditative essays on the possibilities—and impossibilities—of nothingness and infinity, and how our place in the cosmos falls somewhere in between. Kirkus called it “roaming, eye-opening, insightful, and literate collection of science writing . . . Complex science made accessible.” Lightman has also often been a guest on NPR and other radio programs, and was the inaugural recipient of Harvard’s Humanist Hub for “Humananism in Literature” award.


“A scientist who is a humanist in the noblest sense of the word.”

The Los Angeles Times

In astrophysics, Lightman has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of black holes, radiation processes at the centers of galaxies, and the foundations of Einstein’s theory of gravity. He is a past chair of the high-energy division of the American Astronomical Society and an elected fellow of the American Physical Society as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At MIT, he has been the John Burchard Professor of Humanities and Senior Lecturer in physics and is currently Professor of the Practice of the Humanities. He founded the MIT graduate program in science writing and has received four honorary doctoral degrees. He also received the Andrew Gemant Award of the American Institute of Physics for linking science and the humanities, the John P. MGovern Science and Society award of the international science society Sigma Xi, and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology.

Speech Topics

Politics & Society
Half the Earth Advancing Women in Southeast Asia and Around the World
In this talk, Alan Lightman discusses the social, economic, and political obstacles women face in Southeast Asia and various strategies to help advance these women. He draws on fifteen years of his own experience, founding, leading and growing the Harpswell Foundation—an organization which has partnered with the Peace Corps, UN Women, Women’s Alliance for Knowledge Exchange, and other organizations devoted to the advancement of women, to develop and implement programs in critical thinking and leadership training for outstanding young women in the region. Key aspects of the strategy include establishing strong bonds between young women in a supportive living community, confidence building, discussion and analysis of international news to promote critical thinking, strong role models, and a mentorship program.
The Accidental Universe

In this talk, based on his book The Accidental Universe (named one of the 10 best science books of 2014 by Brainpickings), Alan Lightman discusses the recent findings by astronomers and physicists that our universe may be an “accident,” just one of trillions of other universes with vastly different properties from our own. Some, for example, with 17 dimensions, some without planets or stars, many of which completely lack the existence of any kind of life. Lightman explores the philosophical and theological implications of these universes, and discusses the profound mismatch between our desire for permanence and immortality and the evidence in nature that all things are impermanent—even the stars.

Albert Einstein and Relativity

In this lecture, Alan Lightman discusses the life of Albert Einstein, using some of the personal letters Einstein himself wrote, and then presents the theory of relativity in layman’s terms, with colorful illustrations. This talk draws on the many articles Lightman has published about Einstein and his work.

Surviving in the Wired World

In this lecture, Alan Lightman discusses the way in which much of modern technology has created a virtual reality that has robbed us of immediate experience with the world and has also contributed to an increasing pace of life that prevents us from much-needed personal reflection. Lightman does not view technology as having intrinsic values: it’s how we human beings use technology—at the level of the individual—that gives it values, good and bad. He discusses ways to adapt to our technological society while preserving our humanity. This talk draws from Lightman’s published articles on technology and also from his novel The Diagnosis, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

The Physicist as Novelist

In this lecture, Alan Lightman draws on his unique personal experience as both a physicist and a novelist to discuss the similarities and differences in the way that the sciences and the arts approach the world, their different conceptions of truth, their different methodologies, and the similarities in their creative process. For example, all questions in science have definite answers, while questions in the arts (and often the humanities) do not have definite answers—and sometimes no answer at all.

Science and Religion

In this lecture, Alan Lightman discusses the differences between science and religion in their beliefs, in truth and knowledge—in the ways we obtain those beliefs and knowledge—and in recognized authority. He looks at the differences between the spiritual and physical worlds. Central to religious and spiritual beliefs is the highly personal “transcendent experience”—and the authority for it arises from the experience itself. Central to most scientific beliefs is impersonal testing in the external world. Science and religion differ profoundly in the process of revision: all knowledge in science is considered provisional, subject to test and proof. Science does, however, have one very important belief that is not subject to proof: belief that the physical world is governed by logic and laws, and that those laws hold everywhere and at every time in the universe. Thus, in this sense, both science and religion work on a kind of faith.  


The Great Discoveries of Science
Drawing on his studies of important 20th-century discoveries in physics, biology, and chemistry—published in his book The Discoveries—Lightman describes some of the great scientific achievements and the men and women behind them. Is there a common scientific personality? Is there a common background of great scientists? He also describes the creative process in science and looks for patterns of creativity and discovery revealed in his study.